Iisus Khristos Loves You

For at least two fifth-grade girls at Moscow's School No. 443, the foreign film they were watching was just too scary. It was a movie of the life of Jesus, produced by American evangelists, and when the Crucifixion scene began, the two 11-year-olds fled the school auditorium, then crept back to find out how the violent scene had ended. "He dies and then they bury him," explained their braver friend, Olya, "and then three days later he comes back to life."

That millions of Russian children do not know the story of Jesus is a tribute, of sorts, to some 75 years of compulsory atheism in their schools. During the communist era, the official model of morality was Lenin himself, whom Soviet teachers endowed with many of the virtues that Christians attribute to Jesus. "We were taught to believe that that Lenin was kind, loved children and sacrificed everything for the good of society," recalls Evgenia Tikhonova, a teacher for 40 years. "Now that belief is gone and that is why we have to turn to Jesus. Either the children will learn from his example," says Tikhonova, who is still an atheist herself, "or they will turn to crime, drugs and alcohol."

Now there is a religious revival in Russia, and educators-pressured, at times, by parents-are searching for ways to give students an ethic to live by. In a change as radical as its embrace of democracy, Russia-like several other former Soviet republics-has embarked on a massive effort to bring the teaching of religion back into its 160,000 schools. The voluntary, after-hours program is the special project of Aleksandr Asmolov, deputy minister of education. Asmolov's dream is to provide Russian students with enough information about "the history of spiritual culture" to allow them "to freely choose any religion they want." The problem is that Russian educators do not know how-or what-to teach about religion. Nor do they have the proper books and materials. To remedy these deficiencies, Asmolov has invited a rainbow of religious groups-Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, as well as Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox and assorted Protestants-to instruct his teachers and public-school administrators. So far, however, practically the only groups with the money, materials and will to respond have been evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants from the United States.

Under the auspices of The CoMission, 60 American missionary, educational and other evangelistic organizations have united to raise a "Christian Peace Corps" of 12,000 lay volunteers. Each must be willing to spend a minimum of one year in the former Soviet Union at an estimated annual cost of $20,000. Already, CoMission teams have given four-day workshops for more than 8,000 Russian educators and the Campus Crusade for Christ film "JESUS" has been seen by an estimated 110 million people. By the end of 1997, when their contract ends, leaders hope to leave behind 2,400 Russians capable of teaching Scripture in public schools, colleges and youth groups. "There are 300,000 teachers who used to run the Communist Youth League," estimates Paul Eshleman, director of the JESUS film project and vice chairman of CoMission. "Obviously, they now have a problem of what to teach."

With some 35 million schoolchildren, Russia represents a huge market for the entrepreneurial Americans-and, mostly by default, it is theirs alone to exploit. The Russian Orthodox Church is more interested in creating its own parochial schools and opposes foreign participation in state-sponsored religious education. Russia's remaining Jews, virtually all Orthodox, are busy developing yeshivas. Roman Catholics do not have enough catechists even to teach their own children. Muslims and Buddhists are concerned with their own constituencies in the Asian republics. Thus far the only group Asmolov has refused to accept is the Unification Church, which recently on its own entertained some 5,000 educators at a Black Sea resort.

In theory, the visiting Americans are supposed to train Russian teachers in teaching Christian ethics, not doctrine. To the Russians, this means demonstrating how the values Jesus taught, such as forgiveness, can benefit secular society. But in fact, The CoMission's teaching manuals say very little about the ethics Jesus taught: the Sermon on the Mount, for example, is ignored. Instead, the manuals' entire thrust is to lead students step by step toward making a "voluntary" commitment to Jesus "as Savior and Lord." In short, to act like Jesus, students must first have faith in him. Moreover, the American evangelists are not supposed to teach the students themselves. Yet, whenever Russians invite them into their classrooms, the Americans readily oblige.

So far, Asmolov, who is Jewish, seems unconcerned that the American evangelists may be violating Russia's church-state separation law. They impress him, he says, as "joyful people who are practically on a first-name basis with God." Moreover, he welcomes the truckloads of pens, pencils and paper-scarce items in Russian schools-that the Americans are shipping, not to mention the latest video and other technological equipment that The CoMission has promised to supply. "When you are enduring an ideological shock and someone holds out his hand to help you," Asmolov argues, "you don't check out the hand under a microscope." Russian parents, though, may feel differently when their children come home and announce they've learned to become evangelical Christians at school. Not to worry, says evangelist Eshleman. In that event the CoMissionaries are prepared to give religious instructions for parents as well.